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August 2, 2000

HIROSHIMA AND HISTORY

August 6 is just another day for most Americans, but it's significant for Japanese. It's the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the close of World War II.

My mother, who was a student at the time in the northern-most island of Hokkaido, was taught along with other boys and girls how to attack the invading Americans with bamboo spears.
If the anniversary is of note to Americans at all, it's because the dropping of the atomic bomb is still debated today.

While most agree that future use of nuclear weapons should be avoided at all costs, many think the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9 were unnecessary. They think that with its resources depleted and war-making machinery crippled and on the verge of collapse, Japan was about to surrender anyway. There were alternatives such as a naval blockade to bring the war to an end, and Russia was belatedly about to declare war on Japan on August 9 (just in time to make claims for reparations and territory from Japan after the surrender).

Others think the bombings were needed to convince Japan that continued fighting would be futile -- and deadly. They also were afraid, from the way soldiers (and thousands of civilians on Okinawa) chose to die rather than surrender, that the Japanese would fight to the death as a country. The more cynical conspiracy theorists among us even think the bombs were used not just to end World War II but also as a flexing of techno-military muscle; a chilling show of force to Russia at the dawn of the Cold War. There are lively debates that continue -- you can find them on the Internet -- about the political and moral issues that surround the use of atomic weapons.

Although I'm as interested in analyzing history as anyone, I find myself usually ignoring the arguments over why the bomb was used.

It was used, and just picking at the motives trivializes the human toll. The bomb that flashed over Hiroshima that summer day killed 80,000 people immediately and about 60,000 more from radiation sickness within six months. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later ultimately killed about 70,000 people. The numbers are horrendous because the damage was done so quickly, with just one weapon over each city.

There had been horrible casualties before the atomic bomb -- earlier in 1945, 100,000 people had been killed in Tokyo in one night of fire bombing by hundreds of B-29 bombers. Japanese cities of the time were mostly built of wood, so any bombing was a threat to the entire population because fires spread so quickly and snuffed out any oxygen for citizens to breathe.

But the atomic bomb could stack up casualties so casually that it brought the horrors of war to a new level.

I don't know whether the entire population of Japan would have fought tooth-and-nail for every inch of land if the U.S. had mounted an invasion of the main islands. I do know my mother, who was a student at the time in the northern-most island of Hokkaido, was taught along with other boys and girls how to attack the invading Americans with bamboo spears. It seems ridiculously futile today, especially compared to the destructive power of the A-bomb. But it's hard to imagine what people's mentality was on either side of the Pacific over half a century ago.

The best we can do is to value peace over war and remember the tragedies of the past.

For young people -- perhaps the most important ones who need to remember the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the atomic bomb and its devastation are captured in popular culture.

The story of "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes" is widely published, bringing its moving message worldwide. Eleanor Corr's telling of the story, in which a young girl who finds she's dying is told that if she makes a thousand origami cranes she would live, is still in print today. Sadako never got to her thousand cranes, but today, a statue of the girl in Hiroshima's Peace Park is decorated with more than enough cranes, left in tribute by those who hope that what happened to her won't happen again to anyone.

And the bombing of Hiroshima is vividly captured in a manga, or comic-book series, and subsequent anime, or animate feature available on video and DVD, called "Barefoot Gen." It does a disservice to "Barefoot Gen" to call it merely a comic or a cartoon. Written and drawn by Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa and animated by producer Masao Maruyama, the story vividly and horrifically evokes the blast and its aftermath. The story's grim and tragic, but with a ray of hope for renewed life -- and of course, hope for the generations to come if nuclear war is avoided.

I watched "Barefoot Gen" and read "Sadako and the Thousand Cranes" recently, so Hiroshima is on my mind this year. I don't always mark August 6 -- like most Americans, I'm afraid it has come and gone in past years as just another day. But I need to remember that the atomic age began not so long ago, and that its destructive power is still very much with us in this world.

None of us can afford to forget.

There are many Web sites that address the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Among the best are the A-Bomb WWW Museum and the University of Ohio has a well-written essay on the debate over the use of the bomb. You can also visit "The Cyber Exhibit: The Enola Gay an the Atomic Bomb," which is a Japanese Web site produced by the national TV network NHK, with permission from the Smithsonian Institution, excerpting the text and script of a 1995 Smithsonian exhibit which was changed because of protests claiming it took a pro-Japan, anti-nuclear position. You can decide for yourself.

 


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